Mental Paralysis at Work

I graduated college cum laude, and still had plenty of time for side activities like my a cappella group and partying with friends. I guess I have a pretty good memory and was able to make the most of those pre-exam and pre-paper all-nighters. Although law school was more demanding, I had some inspiring professors and really got into the subject matter. So I was not prepared for what I am facing now, a few years into working for a mid-size law firm. Nowadays, I go through months at a time when I can’t seem to concentrate. I spend hours staring at the computer monitor, with nothing happening in my head, trying to salvage some cogent thoughts from the sludge in my brain. Too much of the time, I end up doing on-line shopping or read the day’s news, or I find an excuse to escape the office altogether. I walk around wondering when my lack of productivity will be discovered, but I can’t call attention to myself or I could lose the job. Needless to say, my self-esteem is at an all-time low, and I can’t even enjoy anything I do on weekends. What do I do?

Turns out that there is a down-side in the lives of those clever, talented kids who get through school without having to study much – you were “deprived” of the experience of learning to “plug away” at tasks little by little, including those that you initially found incomprehensible or insurmountable. Intellectual sharpness and the ability to catch onto many things quickly are certainly assets, but the acquired skill of plugging away may be equally or even more valuable in the long run.

We’re sure this doesn’t come as news to you, but large or unfamiliar tasks only become manageable when broken down into very small steps. If you are tackling an area that is new to you, the early steps may involve research (including asking others), and sub-steps like (1) get the title of one relevant article or precedent, (2) read the first paragraph until it makes sense, etc. Or, (1) Decide who’s best to ask, Fred, Joyce, or Irene; (2) Leave voice-mail for that person.

These steps must be broken down into units so small (depending on how frozen you mind feels) that there is no chance you can’t do it. People are often surprised how they “get rolling” after pushing themselves into the first few steps. One step after another is the essence of plugging away, along with persistence, e.g., coming back to it in an hour.

Examine, also, what you’re saying to yourself about the process in which you are engaged. (Not that you literally put these things into words, but it helps to find words in order to do battle with unhelpful beliefs.) For example, you could be telling yourself, “If it doesn’t come naturally to me, I can’t do it.” Then think about a realistic alternative thought to keep repeating to yourself as a substitute, e.g., “This is new to me, and it may not be easy, but all the evidence suggests that I have the brain power to figure it out in time – I have learned and mastered harder things.”

Your mental paralysis can also, of course, be viewed as depression, and it is easy to see how circular the process can become – the more depressed you feel, the more you want to withdraw from the project at hand, the less you accomplish, the more you view yourself as ineffective, the more depressed you feel, … The small-steps and thought-challenging approaches described above may help you break out of that cycle, and there are other approaches that could also be helpful, including ones that are more obviously clinical. Wherever, whenever, and however you do it, you can find a way to interrupt the cycle and begin to create a greater sense of efficacy. Once that happens, you are on the way toward a more satisfying professional life.

We have not even touched upon the question of other psychological conflicts that may be at work, contributing to the ways that you have felt stuck. It would be well worth evaluating the situation clinically – for example, at LCL, or with a recommended therapist, or with an in-house employee assistance program if your firm has one. (Sometimes involvement with the EAP can be somewhat protective of your job while you are in the process of addressing the problem.)

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